Education

67 Years After Brown v. Board, Black Students in Miami Still Feel Left Behind

A mother escorts her two daughters to Orchard Villa Elementary School in Liberty City, which had been integrated in 1959.
A mother escorts her two daughters to Orchard Villa Elementary School in Liberty City, which had been integrated in 1959. Photo courtesy of Florida Memory
click to enlarge A mother escorts her two daughters to Orchard Villa Elementary School in Liberty City, which had been integrated in 1959. - PHOTO COURTESY OF FLORIDA MEMORY
A mother escorts her two daughters to Orchard Villa Elementary School in Liberty City, which had been integrated in 1959.
Photo courtesy of Florida Memory
From an early age, Briell Robinson says, she figured out that attending predominantly Black public schools in Miami-Dade County meant her opportunities, resources, and support systems would be limited.

"I've noticed that success at these schools and what's celebrated is the average levels of proficiency, at best," Robinson says. "When we get our school grade, the school district will be a high B or an A, while predominantly Black schools are still failing."

For Robinson, transferring to predominantly white and Latino schools that provided more advanced classes, rigorous programs, and challenging extracurriculars meant experiencing shameless racism from peers. During her freshman, sophomore, and junior years at Miami Springs Senior High School, she says, one student regularly called her by a racial slur in front of other classmates.

"Miami-Dade County, as a whole, is very evident that it's segregated, and you kind of have to pick and choose your battles with education," says Robinson, who recently transferred to Coral Gables Senior High School to finish her junior year. "It seems you either choose less opportunity, or you choose having to deal with the repercussions of being in a predominantly white space."

This week marks the 67th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which declared racial segregation in schools unconstitutional and established that separate-but-equal education was not, in fact, equal.

Schools are supposed to reflect a community, but Miami-Dade schools have historically mirrored the area's racial segregation.

As recently as 2017, Florida State University researchers found that Miami-Dade schools have the second-highest rate of racial segregation in the state. FSU also determined that Miami-Dade has the highest concentration of "apartheid" schools, where the population of nonwhite students is 99 to 100 percent.

Almost seven decades after Brown v. Board, school districts are still doing the necessary work to dismantle educational and socioeconomic segregation in their communities to create more equitable environments for students and families. To that end, New Times asked Miami-Dade students and teachers at predominantly Black schools what would make the county's public schools more equitable. Here's what they said would help.

Diversifying the curriculum

Kalyn Lee, Miami's Dade's 2020 Rookie Teacher of the Year and an English teacher at Miami Edison Senior High School, believes Miami-Dade's curriculum and textbooks aren't as diverse as they could be. Lee, who is Black, says it's important for students to learn more about their community's history.

She also wishes students were exposed to the stories of Black people who have contributed to society. It's not enough to learn about Martin Luther King, Jr., she says.

"Having a curriculum that reflects the population is important for a number of reasons," Lee says. "Having students who are aware of contributions different individuals have made is a huge confidence booster. Sometimes students don't get the opportunity to see people who look like them who were able to succeed."

Discussing a community's history, its people, and the events that have shaped it would also open the door for difficult conversations surrounding issues such as racism, oppression, socioeconomic disparity, and police brutality.

"Students don't always have the tools to have these conversations from a historical perspective," Lee says. "When they can make connections, not only are they willing and ready to learn, they can be the change-makers they want to be. Students who are not Black will also benefit. It forces culturally relevant pedagogy to occur within the classrooms. When we don't teach these topics, it's another injustice."

Some teachers might not feel prepared to have those conversations, though, which Lee says is where more diversity, equity, and inclusion training comes into the picture. Diversity, equity, and inclusion curriculum, or DEI for short, encourages empathy, diverse perspectives, and an exploration of differences in the classroom.

"A teacher is a facilitator," Lee says. "Teachers sometimes don't have the tools necessary to comfortably have tough discussions. And if a teacher is avoiding topics, that doesn't prepare the student to analyze what's going on in the world — that's a disservice."

Providing more classroom resources

Mya, a 16-year-old attending Miami Northwestern Senior High School, tells New Times that in her world history class last year, two or more classmates needed to share a textbook or snap pictures of the pages because there weren't enough books to go around. She recently didn't have a school laptop to take her end-of-course exams for U.S. history. And when she took geometry last year, there was only one calculator for the entire class to share.

"I don't think the funding is necessarily the school's fault as to why we don't have the resources," she says. "I think it's a districtwide problem. I think our schools are majorly underfunded, and I think that derives from a form of racial prejudice."

Incorporating diversity, equity, and inclusion principles

Today, Alexandria Martin is an English and language arts teacher at Miami Carol City Senior High School. But when she looks back on her own time as a student at the school, she realizes she didn't have many opportunities to learn about and embrace different cultures and people. School was more about meeting standards than analyzing texts to learn about people and what makes them who they are.

Martin has taught at Carol City High for 16 years, and she strives to create every possible opportunity for students to humanize one another, to foster an environment of safety in the classroom, and to allow room for divergent opinions.

"I want students to express things they might think are not culturally well-received and break down those conversations and challenge those thought processes," Martin tells New Times. "Let's find out how in this small space we can create community. It's something I went into teaching wanting to create, but I don't think it ricochets across the entire school or district the same way."

Martin says diversity, equity, and inclusion lessons are voluntary for Miami-Dade teachers, but she believes that DEI training ought to be required for educators and that the school district should choose textbooks that include that type of curriculum to make it easier for teachers to facilitate conversations.

"A lot of teachers are fearful of doing this work independently," Martin says. "They don't feel they're trained to become innovative practitioners of diversity, equity, and inclusion. One misstep and you're under personnel investigation for tapping into the wrong topic at the wrong time and hitting a nerve with a parent. Teachers can be fearful to have tough conversations with students as part of DEI work, so I think choosing textbooks, literature, and creating curriculums that educate with DEI in mind will be really helpful to teachers."

Inspiring all students to succeed

Mya, the 16-year-old Miami Northwestern student, says that sometimes when she's asked what school she attends, people respond, "Oh, you go to the school with the good football team."

She feels that people sometimes overlook the academic abilities of Black students when their school is more associated with athletics.

"People view the students as people who have physical abilities but not mental abilities," she says.

Jamison, a 17-year-old football player and honors student at Miami Northwestern, feels that students who attend predominantly white schools are considered superior to students who go to predominantly Black schools.

"My frustration is that every student should be treated as the cream of the crop," he says.

Jamison adds that some of his peers believe that because they're athletes, they won't do as well in classes. He tries to encourage his teammates to reach for more and pursue higher-level courses.

"They can have honors classes, too," he says. "We can all have the same type of education, whether we're athletes or not."

Meeting students where they are

Several students attending Miami Northwestern told New Times that gun violence in their communities is something that is part and parcel of their lives — so much so that they have become desensitized to the sound of gunfire and news that someone was killed.

"Sometimes it's like, 'Oh, wow, again,'" says Maria, an 18-year-old student at the school. "But you have to keep moving. That's another thing we should have more conversations about. We've all experienced loss — a friend or classmate who's passed away. Even if it wasn't a close friend, it all affects us one way or another."

Some students feel they shouldn't be expected to have a regular day at school when they've experienced a traumatic event. They believe that the day's lessons should be changed to account for students' emotions and that more counselors should be made available to help them process what happened.

"A lot of educators don't realize that inner-city students don't have the luxury of walking to school and not being afraid something will happen," Maria says. "Someone just got shot across the street. How can we thrive in the classroom when all these other things are on our mind?"

Providing more mental-health resources

Maria, the 18-year-old Miami Northwestern student, says she once saw a fellow student self-harm while in the classroom when a teacher wasn't around to intervene. Once the student spoke up about the situation, Maria says, the teacher didn't seem concerned about the student or what his classmates had witnessed. Instead, the teacher chastised the class.

"Sometimes teachers come into inner-city schools but don't try to understand students," she says. "As minority students, we have more disadvantages and go through more traumas that kids in predominantly white schools don't necessarily have to go through. We're expected to thrive in the classroom but aren't being given proper attention and resources to do so. There needs to be more than one counselor on campus."

Fighting racism against students

Briell, the student who experienced racism at Miami Springs Senior High, says that while she was president of her class, students sometimes shared racist videos and memes on a group chat created for the junior class. One video involved a person justifying police killings of Black people and one meme showed a dead Black man on a rat trap with a KFC bucket as bait. The caption read, 'I can't breathe.'

"I noticed that only in environments where that behavior was tolerated was where I experienced those things," Briell says.

Briell says she has taken on leadership roles in her schools and joined clubs so she can advocate for changes and fight against the racism she and others face.

"I'm hopeful that with the opportunities I've been able to build for myself that I'll be able to obtain leadership positions to remind students of color and marginalized students in general that they do have a sense of community here," she says. "I learned that being separated from most of my Black peers in other schools, it was hard for me to do that. But I'm going out of my way to make sure other students can have a different experience than the one I had."
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Alexi C. Cardona is a staff writer at Miami New Times. A Hialeah native, she's happy to be back home writing about Miami's craziness after four years working for Naples Daily News.
Contact: Alexi C. Cardona